Now that the reins of our federal governance have once again changed hands, and given the difficulty we experienced in the process and the still-smoldering disagreements that divide some of our citizens from one another, I thought the following article written by the late Sydney J. Harris might prove timely.
Harris, an internationally syndicated columnist with the Chicago Daily News, extended a helping hand to me and to several other aspiring journalists many years ago, and has always been one of my heroes.
A friend of mine, whom I have always considered a calm and stable personality, told me recently that he is regarded in some quarters as a wild-eyed radical, and in other circles as a stony conservative - when actually he is neither.
“It’s an irresistible urge I have when I get together with extremists,” he said. “I promptly swing over to the other extreme, just because I’m so irritated with their one-sided view.”
I was delighted to learn that somebody else reacts that way, too. For years I have deplored my own tendency to do this. In most cases, it gives a false impression of my views - but when I am confronting an extremist, I become a passionate defender of the opposite view.
With ice-cold reactionaries, I sound like a rabid bolshevik; with professional liberals, I take on the tone of a fascist; with the ardent culture-vultures, I pretend to read nothing but comic books and lovelorn columns; with pugnacious lowbrows, I refer haughtily to the French symbolist poets and the ontological existentialism of Kierkegaard.
This, of course, is a senseless way to behave; it is over-reacting to a situation. But, in all fairness, there is something about extremism that breeds its own opposite.
The complacency of the bourgeoisie makes me yearn for the Bohemian life; the sloppiness of the Bohemians brings out my primness; loud-mouth patriots prompt me to take a stand for the French way of life; and moist-eyed lovers of all things European give me the urge to hop on a chair and begin waving Old Glory.
The danger of extremism is that it forces its opponents to adopt an equally extreme view - thus hurting its own cause more than it realizes. The Reign of Terror during the French Revolution was a natural result of the repressive monarchy; the Satanism of Stalin sprang out of the soil of Czarist cruelty.
No single way of living is exactly right. Combination is all. Life is the art of mixing ingredients in tolerable proportions, so that all the varied needs of people are somehow satisfied. This is what all extremists forget, with their too-simple slogans for the good life.
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.